Thoughts on the iPad Mini 4

The iPad Mini 4 is out!  And while it’s not the quantum leap that the iPad Mini 2 was over the original iPad Mini, it’s by far better than the strange iPad Mini 3 (seriously, why was that even released?).

Nevertheless, from Apple’s treatment of the Mini at the September 9th keynote, we know that the iPad Mini is a bit of an red-headed stepchild in the grand scheme of Apple’s product line.  The comment from Phil Schiller was a footnote to the effect of “the power of the iPad Air 2 in the Mini”.  Not strictly true, unfortunately, but a reasonable analogy.

It’s clear Apple has completely reversed course from putting identical hardware in the Air and the Mini, instead opting to underspec the Mini in order to make the products more differentiated.  And tablets, as we all know, have basically saturated most of the market at this point, meaning sales have been declining for a while after a few surging years.  But it seems like the Mini still serves enough of a niche to keep a seat at the table.  So here we are.

So what’s really changed?  In a nutshell:

  1. Slightly taller by 3mm.
  2. Same thickness as iPad Air 2 now (7.5mm down to 6.1mm)
  3. Lighter – 0.73lbs down to 0.65lbs
  4. A7 to A8 processor
  5. 1GB RAM -> 2GB RAM
  6. Fully laminated SRGB color gamut display with anti glare coating (vs 63% on the older iPad Mini’s)
  7. 8MP camera with burst mode, etc.
  8. A smaller battery inside (theoretically compensated for by the more power efficient A8 processor, but not really)

I think that, on paper, this looks like a really good upgrade.  But when you dive into the details (as I am wont to do with Apple products), it’s actually less impressive than it seems.  Let me explain.

The form factor change means I have to throw away all my iPad Mini accessories.  So that’s a couple of cases and covers down the drain.  Normally this is welcome when taken with other upgrades in a new generation, but less so here … continue reading.

The increased tallness looks unwieldy and unbalanced.  It’s almost as if the industrial designers just got lazy and increased the height to fit enough battery inside to cross over the 10 hour usage spec.

The 2GB of RAM is very welcome.  However, no apps take much advantage of this yet except Safari reloading tabs and the Split View feature in iOS9.  Which, to be blunt, I find not useful at all so far.

Cameras on iPad’s are nearly irrelevant, so the upgrade is nice, but not pertinent.

The full gamut display is nice side by side with the old iPad Mini’s.  But you kind of forget about the desaturated colors on the iPad Mini pretty quickly in actual use.  For pros, this is a required upgrade, but for users primarily web surfing, playing games, etc … the color gamut is not something that would impact your ability to enjoy the tablet in any significant way.

Touch ID: again, nice, but usually not very important on a tablet.

The A7 to A8 processor … well, I’ve saved that for the end.  This is a truly terrible processor upgrade.  Not only are we getting last year’s technology, the A8 on its own was a very unimpressive processor generation.  We’ve basically waited two years for a Mini upgrade, and now we only have a 20% upgrade in performance, which I would define as just on the edge of noticeable.  To make matters worse, the A9 has returned to the usual pace of processor improvements (almost 90% faster than the A7) … so we know whenever the next Mini comes out, the speed improvements will be as jaw dropping as we’re used to.

So, the more I look at this upgrade, the less impressed I am.  In the absence of any major features that really change the tablet experience, we’re left with performance improvements as the main driver of an upgrade from the Mini 2 or Mini 3.

And here’s where things fall down … The CPU and GPU upgrades of the A8 are minimal at best.  It’s simply not much faster and you can feel some jerkiness in animations compared to an iPad Air 2.  And the 2GB of RAM, while significant, is not taken advantage of by any apps right now.  Finally, the multitasking implementation in iOS 9 seems rather awkward.  I’ve tried it several times and can’t find much of a use for it yet without a physical keyboard.  Meaning we’ll probably mostly be running in single app mode anyway.

Last, but not least, the market has determined already that the base iPad Air 2 is worth about 350 dollars after a year.  Just look at the used prices and promotions happening for the Air 2 … even for new ones!  And that is a larger tablet with higher specs than the Mini 4!

In other words, the $399 price point that the Mini 4 starts at would have been appropriate a year ago, but the only thing keeping that price where it is today is its newness.  Six months from now, the Mini 4 is going to find its true price point somewhere beneath the market price of the iPad Air 2.

So what am I planning on doing?  Well, the iPad Mini 4 has just enough upgrades to make me want to upgrade, but just enough sameness for my brain to stop me from going ahead with it.  I honestly just can’t figure out how my web surfing or gaming is going to get much better on the Mini 4 vs my current Mini 2.  The Mini 4 is a great tablet on its own, but a lackluster upgrade for previous owners.  Therefore, I’ve decided to wait until the market clears the price of the iPad Mini 4 to some sort of equilibrium level after the newness has worn off.  I’m guessing that may be a couple of months into 2016.  We’ll see how it goes.

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